So let me get something straight. One of the contests on the televised prelims of UFC 241 features Raphael Assuncao, who was one win away from fighting for the bantamweight title, clashing with Cory Sandhagen, a rapidly rising prospect who defeated perennial KO artist John Lineker in his last outing. That’s a fantastic fight. And yet, a contest between Devonte Smith and Khama Worthy gets the billing of featured prelim? Smith is a fine prospect, but he isn’t nearly as advanced in his development as Sandhagen. I don’t want to rip on it too much as Worthy was announced as the second replacement opponent for Smith just a few days ago. But promoting this fight over Assuncao and Sandhagen? That’s promotional malpractice.
The televised prelims begin on ESPN at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Raphael Assuncao (27-6) vs. Cory Sandhagen (11-1), Bantamweight
Even if the UFC isn’t going to give this contest it’s due, I’ll give it the featured treatment. Not that anyone to whom it matters to actually cares….
One of the best fighters in the annals of the UFC to have never received a title shot, Assuncao is hoping to put together one last push to get the ever-elusive opportunity for gold at the age of 37. Given Henry Cejudo is responsible for defending two belts – three if he had it his way, beating on women no less – it seems unlikely Assuncao will be able to fulfill that goal. Then again, we all said that about Michael Bisping and look what happened. I guess persistence pays off….
The biggest reason Assuncao hasn’t gotten the shot is the lack of pizzazz in his performances. He’s as steady as an Alaskan winter night is long, relying on a technically sound counter game while keeping his P’s and Q’s on defense. It makes for a hell of a recipe to win fights, but has also resulted in few finishes, just a solitary KO in the last six years despite seven wins in that span. Assuncao is a solid wrestler, though he usually uses those abilities to keep the fight standing. As a result, fans often forget what a wiz on the ground he is, the armbar once upon a time being a specialty of his. Given Sandhagen’s ridiculous length, don’t be surprised if Assuncao is more aggressive in his efforts to make the contest a battle on the mat.
Regardless of Assuncao’s abilities on the ground, Sandhagen has shown some creative chops on the mat himself, knowing full well how to use his long limbs to his advantage, easily outworking noted grappler Mario Bautista on the ground. His comfort level working off his back and getting back to his feet partially explains his terrible takedown defense percentage – it sits at a 20% success rate -- but his ability to keep his opponents at the end of his jab also partially explains why it isn’t that big of a worry. However, playing on the ground with someone like Assuncao isn’t something he has dealt with yet… not even close.
Despite those concerns for Sandhagen, his standup is where he is at his best. It isn’t just his jab that’s extremely effective on his 5’11” frame. He has plenty of power too, putting Austin Arnett down from a body shot in addition to going toe-to-toe with Lineker. Though Assuncao easily dealt with another hard-hitting and lanky bantamweight in Rob Font, Sandhagen is not one to be thwarted. Plus, often times when a fighter in the twilight of their career losses a high stakes fight like Assuncao did to Marlon Moraes, it often is an indicator of them falling off a cliff. I’m far from confident in my pick, but I’m siding with youth on this one. Sandhagen via TKO of RD3
Manny Bermudez (14-0) vs. Casey Kenney (12-1-1), Bantamweight
In a division overflowing with talented prospects, Bermudez and Kenney are often forgotten about. It’s a shame as both have impressed in their short UFC stints. Bermudez has been on the roster longer, racking up three wins in the process, all of them by submission. One of the most dangerous choke artists in the sport, Bermudez doesn’t need to take the fight to the ground in order to be dangerous. He secured a standing guillotine choke in his UFC debut as opponents are well aware of his prowess on the ground. However, there are several glaring holes. Bermudez hits hard, but also puts everything into his hard hooks, leading to a questionable gas tank. He isn’t a great athlete either, nor does he have much in the way of striking defense. It’s hard to believe his chin can continue to withstand the punishment he puts it through.
Kenney is sure to put Bermudez’s chin to the test. A more diverse and technical striker than Bermudez, Kenney won’t hesitate for one second to put the hurt on Bermudez. Kenney tends to pressure, stays busy in the clinch, and has some excellent takedown defense. Even though Ray Borg was able to take him down a number of times in Kenney’s UFC debut, he also made Borg work for those takedowns, exhausting him and laying into Borg with short, punishing knees, elbows, and punches. Should the fight go to the mat, Kenney is incredibly aggressive going for submissions, though it’s hard to see him catching Bermudez.
This is not an easy contest to predict. Sooner or later, someone is going to test Bermudez’s chin and find it wanting. The question is whether Kenney is the guy to do it. Well… that’s one question. The other question is whether Kenney’s defense is porous enough that Bermudez can nab him in a compromised position? While I do believe someone will put Bermudez to sleep in good time, I don’t think Kenney is the man to do it. Bermudez via submission of RD1
As for the rest….
- There is a LOT to like about Devonte Smith. He’s a hell of an athlete. While he may not be an exceptionally tall lightweight, his 76” reach is difficult to deal with as Smith knows damn well how to use every inch of it. Perhaps most impressive is how accurate he is with his strikes for someone as inexperienced as he is. Granted, he hasn’t exactly faced much in terms of quality competition. Will he be tested by Khama Worthy? Worthy has been a staple in the northeast regional scene for quite some time and has faced quite a few quality opponents. The issue is that he’s lost to every single one of those opponents that would be noteworthy. Worthy is awesome serving as a regional gatekeeper, but he’ll be lucky to get a single victory in the UFC. Smith via TKO of RD1
- Neither Christos Giagos nor Drakkar Klose were seen as anything more than decent prospects when they were first brought into the UFC. In fact, they were expected to serve as fodder in their UFC debuts. Giagos did wash out once, but he fought his way back into the organization and found success since returning as he has played to his strength: wrestling as opposed to winging his heavy hooks. Klose is a much more rounded fighter, though far less explosive than Giagos. Nonetheless, Klose has been able to outwork several of his UFC opponents despite being the less gifted individual. Whether it’s his jab, his consistent work in the clinch, or his sound takedown defense, I’d expect Klose’s steady approach to be enough to overthrow Giagos. Klose via decision